"Choose!" said a voice.
So he chose. He nodded. The men saluted him, and the wounded man was helped away to die. And then she came, angry as a flash of lightning, to spring at him and cling to him and call him names— begging, demanding, ordering, crying—abusing him and praising him in turn. He shook his head. She sobbed, but he shook his head again and pointed westward. Then she took him by the hand and led him away, not looking at his face again.
The crystal ball grew clouded. Yasmini's breath came and went as if she were running in a race, and her pressure on King's fingers was actually painful. The mist dissolved, and King forgot the pressure—forgot everything. The man in armor lay dead on his back in the cave on the wooden bed, and she bent over him, dagger in hand.
"Ah!" said Yasmini, her teeth chattering. "But what else could she do?" The mist closed in again and the crystal grew opaque. "The future!" she begged. "It is the future I must know! Ye old gods, tell me! Show me!"
The mist turned red. The crystal ball became as it were a ball of fire revolving within itself. The fire turned to blood, and the blood to fire again. The very cavern that they knelt in seemed to sway. Yasmini screamed and moaned. She loosed King's hands to cover her own eyes.
And as she did that King sank, like a sack half-empty and toppled over sidewise on the floor asleep.
He neither dreamed nor was conscious of anything, but slept like a dead man, having fought against her mesmerism harder than he knew.
Statesmen, generals, outlaws, all make their big mistakes and manage to recover. Very nearly always it is an apparently little mistake that does most damage in the end, something unnoticeable at the time, that grows in geometrical proportion, minus instead of plus.
Yasmini made her little mistake that minute in believing King was utterly mesmerized at last and utterly in her power. Whereas in truth he was only weary. It may be that she gave him orders in his sleep, after the accepted manner of mesmerists; but if she did, they never reached him; he was far too fast asleep. He slept so deep and long that he was not conscious of men's voices, nor of being carried, nor of time, nor of anxiety, nor of anything.
Wolf met wolf in the dawning day Where scent hung sweet over trodden clay, And square each stood in the jungle way Eyeing the other with ears laid back. Still were the watchers. When foe greets foe The wisest are quietest. Better to go— Who stays to watch trouble woos trouble! But lo! They trotted together to hunt one doe, Eyeing each other with ears laid back.
When King awoke he lay on a comfortable bed in a cave he had never yet seen, but there was no trace of Yasmini, nor of the men who must have carried him to it. Barbaric splendor and splendor that was not by any means barbaric lay all about—tiger skins, ivory-legged chairs, graven bronze vases, and a yak-hair shawl worth a rajah's ransom.
The cave was spacious and not gloomy, for there was a wide door, apparently unguarded, and another square opening cut in the rock to serve as a window. Through both openings light streamed in like taut threads of Yasmini's golden hair—strings of a golden zither, on which his own heart's promptings played a tune.
He had no idea how long he had slept, but judged from memory of his former need of sleep and recogn-tion of his present freshness— and from the fact that it was a morning sun that shone through the openings—that he must have slept the clock round. It did not matter. He knew it did not matter in the least. He had no more plan than a mathematician has who starts to solve a problem, knowing that twice two is four in infinite combination. Like the mathematician, he knew that he must win.
No man ever won a battle or conceived a stroke of statesmanship, no great deed was ever accomplished without a first taste of the triumphant foreknowledge, such as comes only to men who have digged hard, hewing to the line, loyal to first principles. King had been loyal all his life.
The difference between first principles and the other thing could hardly be better illustrated than by comparing Yasmini's position with his. From her point of view he had no ground to stand on, unless he should choose to come and stand on hers. She had men, ammunition, information. He had what he stood in, and his only information had been poured into his ears for her ends.
Yet his heart sang inside him now; and he trusted it because that singing never had deceived him. He did not believe she would have left him alone at that state of affairs unless through over-confidence. It is one of the absolute laws that over-confidence begets blindness and mistakes.
She had staked on what seemed to her the certainty of India's rising at the first signal of a holy war. She believed from close acquaintance that India was utterly disloyal, having made a study of disloyalty. And having read history she knew that many a conqueror has staked on such cards as hers, to win for lack of a better man to take the other side.
But King had studied loyalty all his life, and he knew that besides being the home of money-lenders, thugs, and murderers, India is the very motherland of chivalry; that besides sedition she breeds gentlemen with stout hearts; that in addition to what one Christian Book calls "whoring after strange gods" India strives after purity. He knew that India's ideals are all imperishable, and her crimes but a kaleidoscopic phase.
Not that he was analyzing thoughts just then. He was listening to the still small voice that told him half of his purpose was accomplished. He had probed Khinjan Caves, and knew the whole purpose for which the lawless thousands had been gathering and were gathering still. Remained, to thwart that purpose. And he had no more doubt of there being a means to thwart it than a mathematician has of the result of two times two, applied.
Like a mathematician, he did not waste time and confuse issues by casting too far ahead, but began to devote himself steadily to the figures nearest. Knots are not untied by wholesale, but are conquered strand by strand. He began at the beginning, where he stood.
He became conscious of human life near by and tip-toed to the door to look. A six-foot ledge of smooth rock ended just at the door and sloped in the other direction sharply downward toward another opening in the cliff side, three or four hundred yards away and two hundred feet lower down.
Behind him in a corner at the back of the cave was a narrow fissure, hung with a leather curtain, that was doubtless the door into Khinjan's heart; but the only way to the outer air was along that ledge above a dizzying precipice, so high that the huge waterfall looked like a little stream below. He was in a very eagle's aerie; the upper rim of Khinian's gorge seemed not more than a quarter of a mile above him.
Round the corner, ten feet from the entrance, stood a guard, armed to the teeth, with a rifle, a sword, two pistols and a long curved Khyber knife stuck handy in his girdle. He spoke to the man and received no answer. He picked up a splinter of rock and threw it. The fellow looked at him then. He spoke again. The man transferred his rifle to the other hand and made signs with his free fingers. King looked puzzled. The man opened his mouth and showed that his tongue was missing. He had been made dumb, as pegs are made to fit square holes. King went in again, to wait on events and shudder.
Nor did he have long to wait. There came a sound of grunting, up the rock path. Then footsteps. Then a hoarse voice, growling orders. He went out again to look, and beheld a little procession of women, led by a man. The man was armed, but the women were burdened with his own belongings—the medicine chest—his saddle and bridle—his unrifled mule-pack—and, wonder of wonders! the presents Khinjan's sick had given him, including money and weapons. They came past the dumb man on guard and laid them all at King's feet just inside the cave.
He smiled, with that genial, face-transforming smile of his that has so often melted a road for him through sullen crowds. But the man in charge of the women did not grin. He was suffering. He growled at the women, and they went away like obedient animals, to sit half-way down the ledge and await further orders. He himself made as if to follow them, and the dumb man on guard did not pay much attention; he let women and man pass behind him, stepping one pace forward toward the edge to make more room. That was his last entirely voluntary act in this world.
With a suddenness that disarmed all opposition the other humped himself against the wall and bucked into the dumb man's back, sending him, weapons and all, hurtling over the precipice. With a wild effort to recover, and avenge himself, and do his duty, the victim fired his rifle, that was ready cocked. The bullet struck the rock above and either split or shook a great fragment loose, that hurtled down after him, so that he and the stone made a race of it for the waterfall and the caverns into which the water tumbled thousands of feet away. The other ruffian spat after him, and then walked back to where King stood.
"Now heal me my boils!" he said, grinning at last, doubtless from pleasure at the prospect. He was the same man who had stood on guard at the "guest-cave" when Ismail led King out to see the Cavern of Earth's Drink.
The temptation was to fling the brute after his victim. The temptation always is to do the wrong thing—to cap wrath with wrath, injustice with vengeance. That way wars begin and are never ended. King beckoned him into the cave, and bent over the chest of medical supplies. Then, finding the light better for his purpose at the entrance, he called the man back and made him sit down on the box.
The business of lancing boils is not especially edifying in itself; but that particular minor operation probably saved India. But for hope of it the man with boils would never have stood two turns on guard hand running and let the relief sleep on; so he would not have been on duty when the message came to carry King's belongings to his new cave of residence. There would have been no object in killing the dumb man and so there would have been an expert with a loaded rifle to keep Muhammad Anim lurking down the trail.
Muhammad Anim came—like the devil to scotch King's faith. He had followed the women with the loads. He stood now, like a big bear on a mountain track, swaying his head from side to side six feet away from King, watching the boils succumb to treatment. He grunted when the job was finished, and King jumped, nearly driving the lance into a new place in his patient's neck.
"Let him go!" growled Muhammad Anim. "Go thou! Stand guard over the women until I come!"
The mullah turned a rifle this way and that in his paws, like a great bear dancing. The Mahsudi with a sore neck could have shot him perhaps, but there are men with whom only the bravest dare try conclusions. In cold gray dawn it would have needed a martinet to make a firing squad do execution on Muhammad Anim, even with his hands tied and his back against a wall. A man whose boils had just been lanced was no match for him at all, even in broad daylight. The Hillman slunk away and did as he was told.
"What meant thy message?" growled the mullah. "There came a Pathan to me in the Cavern of Earth's Drink with word that yonder sits a hakim. What of it?"
King had almost forgotten the message he had sent to Muhammad Anim in the Cavern of Earth's Drink. But that was not why his eyes looked past the mullah's now, nor why he did not answer. The mullah did not look round, for he knew what was happening.
The yery Orakzai Pathan who had sat next King in the Cavern of Earth's Drink, and who had carried the message for him, was creeping up behind the women and already had his rifle leveled at the man with boils.
"Aye!" said the mullah, watching King's eyes. "He has done well, and the road is clear!"
The man with boils offered no fight. He dropped his rifle and threw his hands up. In a moment the Orakzai Pathan was in command of two rifles, holding them in one hand and nodding and making signs to King from among the women, whom be seemed to regard as his plunder too. The women appeared supremely indifferent in any event. King nodded back to him. A friend is a friend in the "Hills," and rare is the man who spares his enemy.
"Why send that message to me?" asked Muhammad Anim.
"Why not?" asked King. "If none know where the hakim is, how shall the hakim earn a living?"
"None comes to earn a living in the Hills," growled the mullah, swaying his head slowly and devouring King with cruel calculating eyes. "Why art thou here?"
"I slew a man," said King.
"Thou liest! It was my men who got the head that let thee in! Speak! Why art thou here?"
But King did not answer. The mullah resumed.
"He who brought me the message yesterday says he has it from another, who had it from a third, that thou art here because she plans a simultaneous rising in India, and thou art from the Punjab where the Sikhs all wait to rise. Is that true?"
"Thy man said it," answered King.
"What sayest thou?" the mullah asked.
"I say nothing," said King.
"Then hear me!" said the mullah. "Listen, thou." But he did not begin to speak yet. He tried to see past King into the cave and to peer about into the shadows.
"Where is she?" he asked. "Her man Rewa Gunga went yesterday, with three men and a letter to carry, down the Khyber. But where is she?"
So he had slept the clock round! King did not answer. He blocked the way into the cave and looked past the mullah at a sight that fascinated, as a serpent's eyes are said to fascinate a bird. But the mullah, who knew perfectly well what must be happening, did not trouble to turn his head.
The Orakzai Pathan crouched among the women, and the women grinned. The Mahsudi, having surrendered and considering himself therefore absolved from further responsibility at least for the present, spat over the precipice and fingered gingerly the sore place where his boils had been. He yawned and dropped both hands to his side; and it was at that instant that the Pathan sprang at him.
With arms like the jaws of a vise he pinned the Mahsudi's to his side, and lifted him from off hs feet. The fellow screamed, and the Pathan shouted "Ho!" But he did no murder yet. He let his victim grow fully conscious of the fate in store for him, holding him so that his frantic kicks were squandered on thin air. He turned him slowly, until he was upside-down; and so, perpendicular, face-outward, he hove him forward like a dead log. He stood and watched his victim fall two or three thousand feet before troubling to turn and resume both rifles; and it was not until then, as if he had been mentally conscious of each move, that the mullah turned to look, and seeing only one man nodded. "Good!" he grunted. "'Shabash!"' (Well done!)
Then he turned his head to stare into King's face, with the scrutiny of a trader appraising loot. Fire leaped up behind his calculating eyes. And without a word passing between them, King knew that this man as well as Yasmini was in possession of the secret of the Sleeper. Perhaps he knew it first; perhaps she snatched the keeping of the secret from him. At all events he knew it and recognized King's likeness to the Sleeper, for his eyes betrayed him. He began to stroke his beard monotonously with one hand. The rifle, that he pretended to be holding, really leaned against his back and with the free hand he was making signals.
King knew well he was making signals. But he knew too that in Yasmini's power, her prisoner, he bad no chance at all of interfering with her plans. Having grounded on the bottom of impotence, so to speak, any tide that would take him off must be a good tide. He pretended to be aware of nothing, and to be particularly unaware that the Pathan, with a rifle in each hand, was pretending to come casually up the path.
In a minute he was covered by a rifle. In another minute the mullah had lashed his hands. In five minutes more the women were loaded again with his belongings and they were all half-way down the track in single file, the mullah bringing up the rear, descending backward with rifle ready against surprise, as if he expected Yasmini and her men to pounce out any minute to the rescue.
They entered a tunnel and wound along it, stepping at short intervals over the bodies of three stabbed sentries. The Pathan spurned them with his heel as he passed. In the glare at the tunnel's mouth King tripped over the body of a fourth man and fell with his chin beyond the edge of a sheer precipice.
They were on a ledge above the waterfall again, having come through a projection on the cliff's side, for Khinjan is all rat-runs and projections, like a sponge or a hornet's nest on a titanic scale.
The Pathan laughed and came back to gather him like a sheaf of corn. The great smelly ruffian hugged him to himself as he set him on his feet.
"Ah! Thou hakim!" he grinned. "There is no pain in my shoulder at all! Ask of me another favor when the time comes! Hey, but I am sick of Khinjan!"
He gave King a shove along the path in the general direction of the mullah. Then he seized the dead body by the legs, and hurled it like a sling shot, watching it with a grin as it fell in a wide parabola. After that he took the dead man's rifle, and those of the three other dead men, that he had hidden in a crevice in the rock, and loaded them all on a woman in addition to King's saddle that she carried already.
"Come!" he said. "Hurry, or Bull-with-a-beard yonder will remember us again. I love him best when he forgets!"
They soon reached another cave, at which the mullah stopped. It was a dark ill-smelling hole, but he ordered King into it and the Pathan after him on guard, after first seeing the women pile all their loads inside. Then he took the women away and went off muttering to himself, swaggering, swinging his right arm as he strode, in a way few natives do.
"Let us hope he has forgotten these!" the Pathan grinned, touching the pile of rifles. "Weight for weight in silver they will bring me a fine price! He may forget. He dreams. For a mullah he cares less for meat and money than any I ever saw. He is mad, I think. It is my opinion Allah touched him!"
"What is that, under thy shirt?" King asked.
The Pathan grinned, and undid the button. There was a second shirt underneath, and to that on the left breast were pinned two British medals.
"Oh, yes!" be laughed. "I served the raj! I was in the army eleven years."
"Why did you leave it?" King asked, remembering that this man loved to hear his own voice.
"Oh, I had furlough, and the bastard who stood next me in the ranks was the son of a dog with whom my father had a blood-feud. The blind fool did not know me. He received his furlough on the same day as I. I would not lay finger on him that side of the border, for we ate the same salt. I knifed him this side the border. It was no affair, of the British. But I was seen, and I fled. And having slain a man, and having no doubt a report had gone back to the regiment, I entered this place. Except for a raid now and then to cool my blood I have been here ever since. It is a devil of a place."
Now the art of ruling India consists not in treading barefooted on scorpions—not in virtuous indignation at men who know no better— but in seeking for and making much of the gold that lies ever amid the dross. There is gold in the character of any man who once passed the grilling tests before enlistment in a British-Indian regiment. It may need experience to lay a finger on it, but it is surely there.
"I heard," said King, "as I came toward the Khyber in great haste (for the police were at my heels)—"
"Ah, the police!" the Pathan grinned pleasantly.
The inference was that at some time or other he had left his mark on the police.
"I heard," said King, "that men are flocking back to their old regiments."
"Aye, but not men with a price on their heads, little hakim!"
"I could not say," said King. To seem to know too much is as bad as to drink too much. "But I heard say that the sirkar has offered pardons to all deserters who return."
"Hah! The sirkar must be afraid. The sirkar needs men!"
"For myself," said King, "a whole skin in the 'Hills' seems better than one full of bullet holes in India."
"Hah! But thou art a hakim, not a soldier!"
"True!" said King.
"Tell me that again! Free pardons? Free pardons for all deserters?"
"So I heard."
"Ah! But I was seen to slay a man of my own regiment."
"On this side the border or that?" asked King artfully.
"On this side."
"Ah, but you were seen."
"Ay! But that is no man's business. In India I earned in my salt. I obeyed the law. There is no law here in the 'Hills.' I am minded to go back and seek that pardon! It would feel good to stand in the rank again, with a stiff-backed sahib out in front of me, and the thunder of the gun-wheels going by. The salt was good! Come thou with me!"
"The pardon is for deserters," King objected, "not for political offenders." "Haugh!" said the Pathan, bringing down his flat hand hard on the hakim's thigh. "I will attend to that for thee. I will obtain my pardon first. Then will I lead thee by the hand to the karnal sahib and lie to him and say, 'This is the one who persuaded me against my will to come back to the regiment!"'
"And he will believe? Nay, I would be afraid!" said King.
"Would a pardon not be good?" the Pathan asked him. "A pardon and leave to swagger through the bazaars again and make trouble with the daughters and wives of fat traders—a pardon—Allah! It would be good to salute the karnal sahib again and see him raise a finger, thus; and to have the captain sahib call me a scoundrel—or some worse name if he loves me very much, for the English are a strange race—"
"Thou art a dreamer!" said King. "Untie my hands; the thong cuts me." The Pathan obeyed.
"Dreamer, am I? It is good to dream such dreams. By Allah, I've a mind to see that dream come true! I never slew a man on Indian soil, only in these 'Hills.' I will go to them and say 'Here I am! I am a deserter. I seek that pardon!' 'Truly I will go! Come thou with me, little hakim!"
"Nay," said King, "I have another thought."
"You, who were seen to slay a man a yard this side of the border—"
"Nay; half a mile this side!"
"Half a mile, then. You who were seen to slay a fellow soldier of your regiment, and I who am a political offender, do not win pardons so easily as that"
"Would they hang us?"
That was the first squeamishness the Pathan had shown of any kind, but men of his race would rather be tortured to death than hanged in a merciful hempen noose.
"They would hang us," said King, "unless we came bearing gifts."
"Gifts? Has Allah touched thee? What gifts should we bring? A dozen stolen rifles? A bag of silver? And I am the dreamer, am I?"
"Nay," said King. "I am the dreamer. I have seen a good vision."
"There are others in these Hills—others in Khinjan who wear British medals?"
The Pathan nodded.
"How many?" asked King.
"Hundreds. Men fight first on one side, then on the other, being true to either side while the contract lasts. In all there must be the makings of many regiments among the 'Hills.' "
King nodded. He himself had seen the chieftains come to parley after the Tirah war. Most of them had worn British medals and had worn them proudly.
"If we two," he said, speaking slowly, "could speak with some of those men and stir the spirit in them and persuade them to feel as thou dost, mentioning the pardon for deserters and the probability of bonuses to the time-expired for reenlistment; if we could march down the Khyber with a hundred such, or even with fifty or with twenty-five or with a dozen men—we would receive our pardon for the sake of service rendered."
"Good!" The Pathan thumped him on the back so hard that his eyes watered.
"We would have to use much caution," King advised him, when he was able to speak again.
"Aye! If Bull-with-a-beard got wind of it be would have us crucified. And if she heard of it—"
He was silent. Apparently there were no words in his tongue that could compass his dread of her revenge. He was silent for ten minutes, and King sat still beside him, letting memory of other days do its work—memory of the long, clean regimental lines, and of order and decency and of justice handed out to all and sundry by gentlemen who did not think themselves too good to wear a native regiment's uniform.
"In two days I could do the drill again as well as ever," he said at last. Then there was silence again for fifteen minutes more. "I could always shoot," he murmured; "I could always shoot."
When Muhammad Anim came back they had both forgotten to replace the lashing on King's wrists, but the mullah seemed not to notice it.
"Come!" he ordered, with a sidewise jerk of his great ugly head, and then stood muttering impatiently while they obeyed.
He had twice the number of women with him, but none of them the same; and he had brought five ruffians to guard them, who pounced on the captured rifles and claimed one apiece, to the Pathan's loud-growled disgust. Then the women were made to gather up King's belongings, and at a word from the mullah they started in single file—the mullah leading, then two men, then King, then the Orakzai Pathan, and then the other three. The Pathan began to whisper busily to the man next behind and noticing that King looked straight forward and contented himself; his heart was singing within him unexplainedly; he wanted to sing and dance, as once David did before the ark. He did not feel in the least like a prisoner.
They marched downward through interminable tunnels and along ledges poised between earth and heaven, until they came at last to the tunnel leading to the one entrance into Khinjan Caves. Just before they entered it two more of the mullah's men came up with them, leading horses. One horse was for the mullah, and they helped King mount the other, showing him more respect than is usually shown a prisoner in the "Hills."
Then the mullah led the way into the tunnel, and he seemed in deadly fear. The echo of the hoof-beats irritated him. He eyed each hole in the roof as if Yasmini might be expected to shoot down at him or drench him with boiling oil and hurried past each of them at a trot, only to draw rein immediately afterward because the noise was too great.
It became evident that his men had been at work here too, for at intervals along the passage lay dead bodies. Yasmini must have posted the men there, but where was she? Each of them lay dead with a knife wound in his back, and the mullah's men possessed themselves of rifles and knives and cartridges, wiping off blood that had scarcely cooled yet.
When they came to the end of the tunnel it was to find the door into the mosque open in front of them, and twenty more of Muhammad Anim's men standing guard over the eyelashless mullah. They had bound and gagged him. At a word from Muhammad Anim they loosed him; and at a threat the hairless one gave a signal that brought the great stone door sliding forward on its oiled bronze grooves.
Then, with a dozen jests thrown to the hairless one for consolation, and an utter indifference to the sacredness of the mosque floor, they sought outer air, and Muhammad Anim led them up the Street of the Dwellings toward Khinian's outer ramparts. They reached the outer gate without incident and hurried into the great dry valley beyond it. As they rode across the valley the mullah thumbed a long string of beads. Unlike Yasmini, he was praying to one god; but he seemed to have many prayers. His back was a picture of determined treachery—the backs of his men were expressions of the creed that "He shall keep who can!" King rode all but last now and had a good view of their unconsciously vaunted blackguardism. There was not a hint of honor or tenderness among the lot, man, woman or mullah. Yet his heart sang within him as if he were riding to his own marriage feast!
Last of all, close behind him, marched his friend, the Orakzai Pathan, and as they picked their way among the boulders across the mile-wide moat the two contrived to fall a little to the rear. The Pathan began speaking in a whisper and King, riding with lowered head as if he were studying the dangerous track, listened with both ears.
"She sent her man Rewa Gunga toward the Khyber with a message," he whispered. "He took a few men with him, and he is to send them with the message when they reach the Khyber, but he is to come back. All he went for is to make sure the message is not intercepted, for Bull-with-a-beard is growing reckless these days. He knew what was doing and said at once that she is treating with the British, but there were few who believed that. There are more who wonder where she hides while the message is on its way. None has seen her. Men have swarmed into the Cavern of Earth's Drink and howled for her, but she did not come. Then the mullah went to look for his ammunition that he stored and sealed in a cave. And it was gone. It was all gone. And there was no proof of who had taken it!
"Hakim, there be some who say—and Bull-with-a-beard is one of them— that she is afraid and hides. Men say she fears vengeance for the stolen ammunition, because it was plenty for a conquest of India. So men say. So say these here, for I have asked them."
"And thou?" asked King, struggling to keep the note of exultation from his voice. He did not believe she was hiding. She might be staring into a crystal in some secret cave—she might be planning new mischief of any kind. But afraid she was surely not. And just as surely he could vow she was working out her own undoing.
"I?" said the Pathan. "I swear she is afraid of nothing. If she has taken all the ammunition, then we shall hear from it again and from her too!"
"And what of me?" asked King. "What will the mullah do with me?"
"His men say he is desperate. His own are losing faith in him. He snatched thee to be a bait for her, having it in mind that a man whom she hides in her private part of Khinjan must be of great value to her. He has sworn to have thee skinned alive on a hot rock should she fail to come to terms!"
That being not such a comforting reflection, King rode in silence for a while, with the Pathan trudging solemnly beside his stirrup keeping semblance of guard over him. When they reached the steep escarpment he had to dismount, although the mullah in the lead tried to make his own beast carry him up the lower spur and was mad—angry with his men for laughing when the horse fell back with him.
Far in the rear King and the Pathan shoved and hauled and nearly lost their horse a dozen times at that. But once at the top the mullah set a furious pace and the laden women panted in their efforts to keep up, the men taking less notice of them than if they had been animals.
The march went on in single file until the sun died down in splendid fury. Then there began to be a wind that they had to lean against, but the women were allowed no rest.
At last at a place where the trail began to widen, the mullah beckoned King to ride beside him. It was not that he wished to be communicative, but there were things King knew that he did not know, and he had his own way of asking questions.
"Damned hakim!" he growled. "Pill-man! Poulticer! That is a sweeper's trade of thine! Thou shalt apply it at my camp! I have some wounded and some sick."
King did not answer, but buttoned his coat closer against the keen wind. The mullah mistook the shudder for one of another kind.
"Did she choose thee only for thy face?" he asked. "Did she not consider thy courage? Does she love thee well enough to ransom thee?"
Again King did not answer, but he watched the mullah's face keenly in the dark and missed nothing of its expression. He decided the man was in doubt—-even racked by indecision. "Should she not ransom thee, hakim, thou shall have a chance to show my men how a man out of India can die! By and by I will lend thee a messenger to send to her. Better make the message clear and urgent! Thou shalt state my terms to her and plead thine own cause in the same letter. My camp lies yonder."
He motioned with one sweep of his arm toward a valley that lay in shadow far below them. As far as the slope leading down to it was visible in the moonlight it was littered with what the "Hills" call "hell-stones," that will neither lie flat nor keep on rolling, and are dangerous to man and beast alike. Nothing else could be made out through the darkness but a few twisted tamarisk trees, that served to make the savagery yet more savage and the loneliness more desolate. The gloom below the trees was that of the very underdepths of hell itself.
The mullah pointed to a rock that rose like a shadow from the deeper blackness.
"Yes," said King, "I have seen." And the mullah stared at him. Then he shouted, and the top of the rock turned into a man, who gave them leave to advance, leaning on his rifle as one who had assured himself of their identity long minutes ago.
As they approached it the rock clove in two and became two great pillars, with a man on each. And between the pillars they looked down into a valley lit by fires that burned before a thousand hide tents, with shadows by the hundred flitting back and forth between them. A dull roar, like the voice of an army, rose out of the gorge.
"More than four thousand men!" said the mullah proudly.
"What are four thousand for a raid into India?" sneered King, greatly daring.
"Wait and see!" growled the mullah; but he seemed depressed.
He led the way downward, getting off his horse and giving the reins to a man. King copied him, and part-way sliding, part stumbling down they found their way along the dry bed of a water-course between two spurs of a hillside, until they stood at last in the midst of a cluster of a dozen sentries, close to a tamarisk to which a man's body hung spiked. That the man had been spiked to it alive was suggested by the body's attitude.
Without a word to the sentries the mullah led on down a lane through the midst of the camp, toward a great open cave at the far side, in which a bonfire cast fitful light and shadow. Watchers sitting by the thousand tents yawned at them, but took no particular notice.
The mouth of the cave was like a lion's, fringed with teeth. There were men in it, ten or eleven of them, all armed, squatting round the fire.
"Get out!" growled the mullah. But they did not obey. They sat and stared at him.
"Have ye tents?" the mullah asked, in a voice like thunder.
"Aye!" But they did not go yet.
One of the men, he nearest the mullah, got on his feet, but he had to step back a pace, for the mullah would not give ground and their breath was in each other's faces.
"Where are the bombs? And the rifles? And the many cartridges?" he demanded. "We have waited long, Muhammad Anim. Where are they now?"
The others got up, to lend the first man encouragement. They leaned on rifles and surrounded the mullah, so that King could only get a glimpse of him between them. They seemed in no mood to be treated cavalierly—in no mood to be argued with. And the Mullah did not argue.
Ye dogs!" he growled at them, and he strode througli them to the fire and chose himself a good, thick burning brand. "Ye sons of nameless mothers!"
Then he charged them suddenly, beating them over head and face and shoulders, driving them in front of him, utterly reckless of their rifles. His own rifle lay on the ground behind him, and King kicked its stock clear of the fire.
"Oh, I shall pray for you this night!" Muhammad Anim snarled. "What a curse I shall beg for you! Oh, what a burning of the bowels ye shall have! What a sickness! What running of the eyes! What sores! What boils! What sleepless nights and faithless women shall be yours! What a prayer I will pray to Allah!"
They scattered into outer gloom before his rage, and then came back to kneel to him and beg him withdraw his curse. He kicked them as they knelt and drove them away again. Then, silhouetted in the cave mouth, with the glow of the fire behind him, he stood with folded arms and dared them shoot. He lacked little in that minute of being a full-grown brute at bay. King admired him, with reservations.
After five minutes of angry contemplation of the camp he turned on a contemptuous heel and came back to the fire, throwing on more fuel from a great pile in a corner. There was an iron pot in the embers. He seized a stick and stirred the contents furiously, then set the pot between his knees and ate like an animal. He passed the pot to King when he had finished, but fingers had passed too many times through what was left in it and the very thought of eating the mess made his gorge rise; so King thanked him and set the pot aside.
Then, "That is thy place!" Muhammad Anim growled, pointing over his shoulder to a ledge of rock, like a shelf in the far wall. There was a bed upon it, of cotton blankets stuffed with dry grass. King walked over and felt the blankets and found them warm from the last man who had lain there. They smelt of him too. He lifted them and laughed. Taking the whole in both hands be carried it to the fire and threw it in, and the sudden blaze made the mullah draw away a yard; but it did not make him speak.
"Bugs!" King explained, but the mullah showed no interest. He watched, however, as King went back to the bed, and subsequent proceedings seemed to fascinate him.
Out of the chest that one of the women had set down King took soap. There was a pitcher of water between him and the fire; he carried it nearer. With an improvised scrubbing brush of twigs he proceeded to scrub every inch of the rock-shelf, and when he had done and had dried it more or less, he stripped and began to scrub himself.
"Who taught thee thy squeamishness?" the mullah asked at last, getting up and coming nearer. It was well that King's skin was dark (although it was many shades lighter than his face, that had been stained so carefully). The mullah eyed him from head to foot and looked awfully suspicious, but something prompted King and he answered without an instant's hesitation.
"Why ask a woman's questions?" he retorted. "Only women ask when they know the answer. When I watched thee with the firebrand a short while ago, oh, mullah, I mistook thee lor a man."
The mullah grunted and began to tug his beard. But King said no more and went on washing himself.
"I forgot," said the mullah then, "that thou art her pet. She would not love thee unless thy smell was sweet."
"No," said King quite cheerfully—going it blind, for he did not know what had possessed him to take that line, but knew he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb No, if I stank like thee she would not love me."
The muhah snorted and went back to the fire, but he took King's cake of soap with him and sat examining it.
"Tauba!" he swore suddenly as if he had made a gruesome discovery. "Such filthy stuff is made from the fat of pigs!"
"Doubtless!" said King. "That is why she uses it, and why I use it. She is a better Muhammadan than thou. She would surely cleanse her skin with the fat of pigs!"
"Thou art a shameless one!" said the mullah, shaking his head like a bear.
"I am what Allah made me!" answered King, and then, for the sake of the impression, he went through the outward form of muslim prayer, spreading a mat and omitting none of the genuflections. When he had finished he unfolded his own blankets that a woman had thrown down beside the chest and spread them carefully on the rock-shelf. But though he was allowed to climb up and lie there, he was not allowed to sleep—nor did he want to sleep—for more than an hour to come.
The mullah came over from the fire again and stood beside him, glaring like a great animal and grumbling in his beard.
"Does she surely love thee?" he asked at last, and King nodded, because he knew he was on the trail of information.
"So thou art to ape the Sleeper in his bronze mail, eh? Thou art to come to life, as she was said to come to life, and the two of you are to plunder India? Is that it?"
King nodded again, for a nod is less committal than a word; and the nod was enough to start the mullah off again.
"I saw the Sleeper and his bride before she knew of either! It was I who let her into Khinjan! It was I who told the men she is the 'Heart of the Hills' come to life! She tricked me! But this is no hour for bearing grudges. She has a plan and I am minded to help."
King lay still and looked up at him, sure that treachery was the ultimate end of any plan the mullah Muhammad Anim had. India has been saved by the treachery of her enemies more often than ruined by false friends. So has the world, for that matter.
"A jihad when the right hour comes will raise the tribes," the mullah growled. "She and thou, as the Sleeper and his mate, could work wonders. But who can trust her? She stole that head! She stole all the ammunition! Does she surely love thee?"
King nodded again, for modesty could not help him at that juncture. Love and boastfulness go together in the "Hills."
"She shall have thee back, then, at a price!"
King did not answer. His brown eyes watched the mullah's, and he drew his breath in little jerks, lest by breathing aloud he should miss one word of what, was coming.
"She shall have thee back against Khinian and the ammunition! She and thou shall have India, but I shall be the power behind you! She must give me Khinjan and the ammunition! She must admit me to the inner caves, whence her damned guards expelled me. I must have the reins in my two hands so! Then, thou and she shall have the pomp and glitter while I guide!"
King did not answer.
King murmured something unintelligible.
"Otherwise, I and my men will storm Khinjan, and she and thou shall go down into Earth's Drink lashed together!"
King shuddered, not because he felt afraid, but because some instinct told him to make the mullah think him afraid. He was far too interested to be fearful.
"Ye shall both be tortured before the plunge into the river! She shall be tortured in the Cavern of Earth's Drink before the men!"
King shuddered again, this time without an effort. He could imagine the thousands watching grimly while the flayer used his knife.
"I have men in Khinjan! I have as many as she! On the day I march there will be a revolt within. She would better agree to terms!"
King lay looking at him, like a prisoner on the rack undergoing examination. He did not answer.
"Write thou a letter. Since she loves thee, state thine own case to her. Tell her that I hold thee hostage, and that Khinjan is mine already for a little fighting. In a month she can not pick out my men from among her own. Her position is undermined. Tell her that. Tell her that if she obeys she shall have India and be queen. If she disobeys, she shall die in the Cavern of Earth's Drink!"
"She is a proud woman, mullah," answered King. "Threats to such as she—?"
The mullah mumbled and strode back and forth three times between King's bed and the fire, with his fists knotted together behind him and his head bent, as Napoleon used to walk. When he stood beside the bed again at last it was with his mind made up, as his clenched fists and his eyes indicated.
"Make thine own terms with her!" be growled. "Write the letter and send it! I hold thee; she holds Khinjan and the ammunition. I am between her and India. So be it. She shall starve in there! She shall lie in there until the war is over and take what terms are offered her in the end! Write thine own letter! State the case, and bid her answer!"
"Very well," said King. He began to see now definitely how India was to be saved. It was none of his business to plan yet, but to help others' plans destroy themselves and to sow such seed in the broken ground as might bear fruit in time.
The mullah left him, to squat and gaze into the fire, and mutter, and King lay still. After a while the mullah went and carried a great water bowl nearer to the fire and, as King had done, stripped himself. Then he heaped great fagots on the fire—wasteful fagots, each of which had cost some woman hours of mountain climbing. And in the glow of the leaping flame he scrubbed himself from head to foot with King's soap. Finally, with a feat of strength that nearly forced an exclamation out of King, he lifted the great water bowl in both hands and emptied the whole contents over himself. Then be resumed his smelly garments without troubling to dry his body, and got out a Quran from a corner and began to read it in a nasal singsong that would have kept dead men awake. King lay and watched and listened.
Reading scripture only seemed to fire the mullah's veins. For him sleep was either out of reach or despicable, perhaps both. He seemed in a mood to despise anything but conquest and strode back and forth up and down the cave like a caged bear, muttering to himself.
After a time he went to the mouth of the cave, to stand and stare out at the camp where the thousand fires were dying fitfully and wood smoke purged the air of human nastiness. The stars looked down on him, and he seemed to try to read them, standing with fists knotted together at his back.
And as he stood so, six other mullahs came to him and began to argue with him in low tones, he browbeating them all with furious words hissed between half-closed teeth. They were whispering still when King fell asleep. It was courage, not carelessness, that let him sleep—courage and a great hope born of the mullah's perplexity.
He dreamed that he was writing, writing, writing, while the torturers made a hot fire ready in the Cavern of Earth's Drink and whetted knives on the bridge end while the organ played The Marseillaise. He dreamed Yasmini came to him and whispered the solution to it all, but what she whispered he could not catch, although she whispered the same words again and again and seemed to be angry with him for not listening.
And when he awoke at last he had fragments of his blanket in either hand, and the sun was already shining into the jaws of the cave. The camp was alive and reeked of cooking food. But the mullah was gone, and so was all the money the women had brought, together with his medicines and things from Khinjan.
When the last evil jest has been made, and the rest Of the ink of hypocrisy spilt, When the awfully right have elected to fight Lest their own should discover their guilt; When the door has been shut on the "if" and the "but" And it's up to the men with the guns, On their knees in that day let diplomatists pray For forgiveness from prodigal sons.
Instead of the mullah, growling texts out of a Quran on his lap, the Orakzai Pathan sat and sunned himself in the cave mouth, emitting worldlier wisdom unadulterated with divinity. As King went toward him to see to whom he spoke he grinned and pointed with his thumb, and King looked down on some sick and wounded men who sat in a crowd together on the ramp, ten feet or so below the cave.
They seemed stout soldierly fellows. Men of another type were being kept at a distance by dint of argument and threats. Away in the distance was Muhammad Anim with his broad back turned to the cave, in altercation with a dozen other mullahs. For the time he was out of the reckoning.
"Some of these are wounded," the Pathan explained. "Some have sores. Some have the belly ache. Then again, some are sick of words, hot and cold by day and night. All have served in the army. All have medals. All are deserters, some for one reason, some for another and some for no reason at all. Bull-with-a-beard looks the other way. Speak thou to them about the pardon that is offered!"
So King went down among them, taking some of the tools of his supposed trade with him and trying to crowd down the triumph that would well up. The seed he had sown had multiplied by fifty in a night. He wanted to shout, as men once did before the walls of Jericho.
A man bared a sword cut. He bent over him, and if the mullah had turned to look there would have been no ground for suspicion. So in a voice just loud enough to reach them all, he repeated what he had told the Pathan the day before.
"But who art thou?" asked one of them suspiciously. Perhaps there had been a shade too much cocksureness in the hakim's voice, but he acted faultlessly when he answered. Voice, accent, mannerism, guilty pride, were each perfect.
"Political offender. My brother yonder in the cave mouth"—(The Pathan smirked. He liked the imputation)—"suggested I seek pardon, too. He thinks if I persuade many to apply for pardon then the sirkar may forgive me for service rendered."
The Pathan's smirk grew to a grin. He liked grandly to have the notion fathered on himself; and his complacency of course was suggestive of the hakim's trustworthiness. But the East is ever cautious.
"Some say thou art a very great liar," remarked a man with half a nose.
"Nay," answered King. "Liar I may be, but I am one against many. Which of you would dare stand alone and lie to all the others? Nay, sahibs, I am a political offender, not a soldier!" They all laughed at that and seizing the moment when they were in a pliant mood the Orakzai Pathan proceeded to bring proposals to a head.
"Are we agreed?" he asked. "Or have we waggled our beards all night long in vain? Take him with us, say I. Then, if pardons are refused us he at least will gain nothing by it. We can plunge our knives in him first, whatever else happens."
That was reasonable and they approved in chorus. Possibility of pardon and reinstatement, though only heard of at second hand, had brought unity into being. And unity brought eagerness.
"Let us start to-night!" urged one man, and nobody hung back.
"Aye! Aye! Aye!" they chorused. And eagerness, as always in the "Hills," brought wilder counsel in its wake.
"Who dare stab Bull-with-a-beard? He has sought blood and has let blood. Let him drink his own."
"Nay! He is too well guarded."
"Let us stab him and take his head with us; there well may be a price on it."
They took a vote on it and were agreed; but that did not suit King at all, whatever Muhammad Anim's personal deserts might be. To let him be stabbed would be to leave Yasmini without a check on her of any kind, and then might India defend herself! Yet to leave the mullah and Yasmini both at large would be almost equally dangerous, for they might form an alliance. There must be some other way, and he set out to gain time.
"Nay, nay, sahibs!" he urged. "Nay, nay!"
"Sahibs, I have wife and children in Lahore. Same are most dear to me and I to them. I find it expedient to make great effort for my pardon. Ye are but fifty. Ye are less than fifty. Nay, let us gather a hundred men."
"Who shall find a hundred?" somebody demanded, and there was a chorus of denial. "We be all in this camp who ate the salt."
It was plain, though, that his daring to hold out only gave them the more confidence in him.
"But Khinjan," he objected. The crimes of the Khinjan men were not to the point. Time had to be gained.
"Aye," they agreed. "There be many in Khinjan!" Mere mention of the place made them regard Orakzai Pathan and hakim with new respect, as having right of entry through the forbidden gate.
"Then I have it!" the Pathan announced at once, for he was awake to opportunity. "Many of you can hardly march. Rest ye here and let the hakim treat your belly aches. Bull-with-a-beard bade me wait here for a letter that must go to Khinjan to-day. Good. I will take his letter. And in Khinjan I will spread news about pardons. It is likely there are fifty there who will dare follow me back, and then we shall march down the Khyber like a full company of the old days! Who says that is not a good plan?"
There were several who said it was not, but they happened to have nothing the matter with them and could have marched at once. The rest were of the other way of thinking and agreed in asserting that Khinjan men were a higher caste of extra-ultra murderers whose presence doubtless would bring good luck to the venture. These prevailed after considerable argument.
Strangely enough, none of them deemed the proposition beneath Khinjan men's consideration. Pardon and leave to march again behind British officers loomed bigger in their eyes than the green banner of the Prophet, which could only lead to more outrageous outlawry. They knew Khinjan men were flesh and blood—humans with hearts—as well as they. But caution had a voice yet.
"She will catch thee in Khinjan Caves," suggested the man with part of his nose missing. "She will have thee flayed alive!"
"Take note then, I bequeath all the women in the world to thee! Be thou heir to my whole nose, too, and a blessing!" laughed the Pathan, and the butt of the jest spat savagely. In the "Hills" there is only one explanation given as to how one lost his nose, and they all laughed like hyenas until the mullah Muhammad Anim came rolling and striding back.
By that time King had got busy with his lancet, but the mullah called him off and drove the crowd away to a distance; then be drove King into the cave in front of him, his mouth working as if he were biting bits of vengeance off for future use.
"Write thy letter, thou! Write thy letter! Here is paper. There is a pen—take it! Sit! Yonder is ink—ttutt—ttutt!—Write, now, write!"
King sat at a box and waited, as if to take dictation, but the mullah, tugging at his beard, grew furious.
"Write thine own letter! Invent thine own argument! Persuade her, or die in a new way! I will invent a new way for thee!"
So King began to write, in Urdu, for reasons of his own. He had spoken once or twice in Urdu to the mullah and had received no answer. At the end of ten minutes he handed up what he had written, and Muhammad Anim made as if to read it, trying to seem deliberate, and contriving to look irresolute. It was a fair guess that be hated to admit ignorance of the scholars' language.
"Are there any alterations you suggest?" King asked him.
"Nay, what care I what the words are? If she be not persuaded, the worse for thee!"
He held it out, and as he took it King contrived to tear it; he also contrived to seem ashamed of his own clumsiness.
"I will copy it out again," he said.
The mullah swore at him, and conceiving that some extra show of authority was needful, growled out:
"Remember all I said. Set down she must surrender Khinjan Caves or I swear by Allah I will have thee tortured with fire and thorns— and her, too, when the time comes!"
Now he had said that, or something very like it, in the first letter. There was no doubt left that the Mullah was trying to hide ignorance, as men of that fanatic ambitious mold so often will at the expense of better judgment. If fanatics were all-wise, it would be a poor world for the rest. "Very well," King said quietly. And with great pretense of copying the other letter out on fresh paper he now wrote what he wished to say, taking so long about it (for he had to weigh each word), that the mullah strode up and down the cave swearing and kicking things over.
"Greeting,"' he wrote, "to the most beautiful and very wise Princess Yasmini, in her palace in the Caves in Khinjan, from her servant Kurram Khan the hakim, in the camp of the mullah Muhammad Anim, a night's march distant in the hills.
"The mullah Muhammad Anim makes his stand and demands now surrender to himself of Khinjan Caves; and of all his ammunition. Further, he demands full control of you and of me and of all your men. He is ready to fight for his demands and already—as you must well know—he has considerable following in Khinjan Caves. He has at least as many men as you have, and he has four thousand more here.
"He threatens as a preliminary to blockade Khinjan Caves, unless the answer to this prove favorable, letting none enter, but calling his own men out to join him. This would suit the Indian government, because while the 'Hills' fight among themselves they can not raid India, and while he blockades Khinjan Caves there will be time to move against him.
"Knowing that he dares begin and can accomplish what he threatens, I am sorry; because I know it is said how many services you have rendered of old to the government I serve. We who serve one raj are One—one to remember—one to forget—one to help each other in good time.
"I have not been idle. Some of Muhammad Anim's men are already mine. With them I can return to India, taking information with me that will serve my government. My men are eager to be off.
"It may be that vengeance against me would seem sweeter to you than return to your former allegiance. In that case, Princess, you only need betray me to the mullah, and be sure my death would leave nothing to be desired by the spectators. At present he does not suspect me.
"Be assured, however, that not to betray me to him is to leave me free to serve my government and well able to do so.
"I invite you to return to India with me, bearing news that the mullah Muhammad Anim and his men are bottled in Khinjan Caves, and to plan with me to that end.
"If you will, then write an answer to Muhammad Anim, not in Urdu, but in a language he can understand; seem to surrender to him. But to me send a verbal message, either by the bearer of this or by some trustier messenger.
"India can profit yet by your service if you will. And in that case I pledge my word to direct the government's attention only to your good service in the matter. It is not yet too late to choose. It is not impertinent in me to urge you.
"Nor can I say how gladly I would subscribe myself your grateful and loyal servant."
The mullah pounced on the finished letter, pretended to read it, and watched him seal it up, smudging the hot wax with his own great gnarled thumb. Then he shouted for the Orakzai Pathan, who came striding in, all grins and swagger.
"There—take it! Make speed!" he ordered, and with his rifle at the "ready" and the letter tucked inside his shirt, the Pathan favored King with a farewell grin and obeyed.
"Get out!" the mullah snarled then immediately. "See to the sick. Tell them I sent thee. Bid them be grateful!" King went. He recognized the almost madness that constituted the mullah's driving power. It is contagious, that madness, until it destroys itself. It had made several thousand men follow him and believe in him, but it had once given Yasmini a chance to fool him and defeat him, and now it gave King his chance. He let the mullah think himself obeyed implicitly.
He became the busiest man in all the "Hills." While the mullah glowered over the camp from the cave mouth or fulminated from the Quran or fought with other mullahs with words for weapons and abuse for argument, he bandaged and lanced and poulticed and physicked until his head swam with weariness.
The sick swarmed so around him that he had to have a body-guard to keep them at bay; so he chose twenty of the least sick from among those who had talked with him after sunrise.
And because each of those men had friends, and it is only human to wish one's friend in the same boat, especially when the sea, so to speak, is rough, the progress through the camp became a current of missionary zeal and the virtues of the Anglo-Indian raj were better spoken of than the "Hills" had heard for years.
Not that there was any effort made to convert the camp en masse. Far from it. But the likely few were pounced on and were told of a chance to enlist for a bounty in India. And what with winter not so far ahead, and what with experience of former fighting against the British army, the choosing was none so difficult. From the day when the lad first feels soft down upon his face until the old man's beard turns white and his teeth shake out, the Hillman would rather fight than eat; but he prefers to fight on the winning side if he may, and he likes good treatment.
Before if was dark that night there were thirty men sworn to hold their tongues and to wait for the word to hurry down the Khyber for the purpose of enlisting in some British-Indian regiment. Some even began to urge the hakim not to wait for the Orakzai Pathan, but to start with what he had.
"Shall I leave my brother in the lurch?" the hakim asked them; and though they murmured, they thought better of him for it.
Well for him that he had plenty of Epsom salts in his kit, for in the "Hills" physic should taste evil and show very quick results to be believed in. He found a dozen diseases of which he did not so much as know the name, but half of the sufferers swore they were cured after the first dose. They would have dubbed him faquir and have foisted him to a pillar of holiness had he cared to let them.
Muhammad Anim slept most of the day, like a great animal that scorns to live by rule. But at evening he came to the cave mouth and fulminated such a sermon as set the whole camp to roaring. He showed his power then. The jihad he preached would have tempted dead men from their graves to come and share the plunder, and the curses he called down on cowards and laggards and unbelievers were enough to have frightened the dead away again.
In twenty minutes he had undone all King's missionary work. And then in ten more, feeling his power and their response, and being at heart a fool as all rogues are, he built it up again.
He began to make promises too definite. He wanted Khinjan Caves. More, he needed them. So he promised them they should all be free of Khinjan Caves within a day or two, to come and go and live there at their pleasure. He promised them they should leave their wives and children and belongings safe in the Caves while they themselves went down to plunder India. He overlooked the fact that Khinjan Caves for centuries had been a secret to be spoken of in whispers, and that prospect of its violation came to them as a shock.
Half of them did not believe him. Such a thing was impossible, and if he were lying as to one point, why not as to all the others, too?
And the army veterans, who had been converted by King's talk of pardons, and almost reconverted by the sermon, shook their heads at the talk of taking Khinjan. Why waste time trying to do what never had been done, with her to reckon against, when a place in the sun was waiting for them down in India, to say nothing of the hope of pardons and clean living for a while? They shook their heads and combed their beards and eyed one another sidewise in a way the "Hills" understand.
That night, while the mullah glowered over the camp like a great old owl, with leaping firelight reflected in his eyes, the thousands under the skin tents argued, so that the night was all noise. But King slept.
All of another day and part of another night he toiled among the sick, wondering when a message would come back. It was nearly midnight when he bandaged his last patient and came out into the starlight to bend his back straight and yawn and pick his way reeling with weariness back to the mullah's cave. He had given his bag of medicines and implements to a man to carry ahead of him and had gone perhaps ten paces into the dark when a strong hand gripped him by the wrist.
"Hush!" said a voice that seemed familiar.
He turned swiftly and looked straight into the eyes of the Rangar Rewa Gunga!
"How did you get here?" he asked in English.
"Any fool could learn the password into this camp! Come over here, sahib. I bring word from her."
The ground was criss-crossed like a man's palm by the shadows of tent-ropes. The Rangar led him to where the tents were forty feet apart and none was likely to overhear them. There he turned like a flash."
"She sends you this!" he hissed."
In that same instant King was fighting for his life.
In another second they were down together among the tent-pegs, King holding the Rangar's wrist with both hands and struggling to break it, and the Rangar striving for another stroke. The dagger he held had missed King's ribs by so little that his skin yet tingled from its touch. It was a dagger with bronze blade and a gold hilt—her dagger. It was her perfume in the air.
They rolled over and over, breathing hard. King wanted to think before he gave an alarm, and he could not think with that scent in his nostrils and creeping into his lungs. Even in the stress of fighting be wondered how the Rangar's clothes and turban had come to be drenched in it. He admitted to himself afterward that it was nothing else than jealousy that suggested to him to make the Rangar prisoner and hand him over to the mullah.
That would have been a ridiculous thing to do, for it would have forced his own betrayal to the mullah. But as if the Rangar had read his mind he suddenly redoubled his efforts and King, weary to the point of sickness, had to redouble his own or die. Perhaps the jealousy helped put venom in his effort, for his strength came back to him as a madman's does. The Rangar gave a moan and let the knife fall.
And because jealousy is poison King did the wrong thing then. He pounced on the knife instead of on the Rangar. He could have questioned him—knelt on him and perhaps forced explanations from him. But with a sudden swift effort like a snake's the Rangar freed himself and was up and gone before King could struggle to his feet—gone like a shadow among shadows.
King got up and felt himself all over, for they had fought on stony ground and he was bruised. But bruises faded into nothing, and weariness as well, as his mind began to dwell on the new complication to his problem.
It was plain that the moment he had returned from his message to the Khyber the Rangar had been sent on this new murderous mission. If Yasmini had told the truth a letter had gone into India describing him, King, as a traitor, and from her point of view that might be supposed to cut the very ground away from under his feet.
Then why so much trouble to have him killed? Either Rewa Gunga had never taken the first letter, or—and this seemed more probable— Yasniini had never believed the letter would be treated seriously by the authorities, and had only sent it in the hope of fooling him and undermining his determination. In that case, especially supposing her to have received his ultimatum on the mullah's behalf before sending Rewa Gunga with the dagger, she must consider him at least dangerous. Could she be afraid? If so her game was lost already!
Perhaps she saw her own peril. Perhaps she contemplated—gosh! what a contingency!—perhaps she contemplated bolting into India with a story of her own, and leaving the mullah to his own devices! In such a case, before going she would very likely try to have the one man stabbed who could give her away most completely. In fact, would she dare escape into India and leave himself alive behind her?
He rather thought she would dare do anything. And that thought brought reassurance. She would dare, and being what she was she almost surely would seek vengeance on the mullah before doing anything else.
Then why the dagger for himself? She must believe him in league with the mullah against her. She might believe that with him out of the way the mullah would prove an easier prey for her. And that belief might be justifiable, but as an explanation it failed to satisfy.
There was an alternative, the very thought of which made him fearfully uneasy, and yet brought a thrill with it. In all eastern lands, love scorned takes to the dagger. He had half believed her when she swore she loved him! The man who could imagine himself loved by Yasmini and not be thrilled to his core would be inhuman, whatever reason and caution and caste and creed might whisper in imagination's wake.
Reeling from fatigue (he felt like a man who had been racked, for the Rangar's strength was nearly unbelievable), he started toward where the mullah sat glowering in the cave mouth. He found the man who had carried his bag asleep at the foot of the ramp, and taking the bag away from him, let him lie there. And it took him five minutes to drag his hurt weary bones up the ramp, for the fight had taken more out of him than he had guegsed at first.
The mullah glared at him but let him by without a word. It was by the fire at the back of the cave, where he stooped to dip water from the mullah's enormous crock that the next disturbing factor came to light. He kicked a brand into the fire and the flame leaped. Its light shone on a yard and a half of exquisitely fine hair, like spun gold, that caressed his shoulder and descended down one arm. One thread of hair that conjured up a million thoughts, and in a second upset every argument!
If Rewa Gunga had been near enough to her and intimate enough with her not only to become scented with her unmistakable perfume but even to get her hair on his person, then gone was all imagination of her love for himself! Then she had lied from first to last! Then she had tried to make him love her that she might use him, and finding she had failed, she had sent her true love with the dagger to make an end!
In a moment he imagined a whole picture, as it might have been in a crystal, of himself trapped and made to don the Roman's armor and forced to pose to the savage "Hills'—or fooled into posing to them—as her lover, while Rewa Gunga lurked behind the scenes and waited for the harvest in the end. And what kind of harvest?
And what kind of man must Rewa Gunga be who could lightly let go all the prejudices of the East and submit to what only the West has endured hitherto with any complacency—a "tertium quid"?
Yet what a fool he, King, had been not to appreciate at once that Rewa Gunga must be her ]over. Why should he not be? Were they not alike as cousins? And the East does not love its contrary, but its complement, being older in love than the West, and wiser in its ways in all but the material. He had been blind. He had overlooked the obvious—that from first to last her plan had been to set herself and this Rewa Gunga on the throne of India!
He washed and went through the mummery of muslim prayers for the watchful mullah's sake, and climbed on to his bed. But sleep seemed out of the question. He lay and tossed for an hour, his mind as busy as a terrier in hay. And when be did fall asleep at last it was so to dream and mutter that the mullah came and shook him and preached him a half-hour sermon against the mortal sins that rob men of peaceful slumber by giving them a foretaste of the hell to come.
All that seemed kinder and more refreshing than King's own thoughts had been, for when the mullah had done at last and had gone striding back to the cave mouth, he really did fall sound asleep, and it was after dawn when he awoke. The mullah's voice, not untuneful was rousing all the valley echoes in the call to prayer.
Allah is Almighty! Allah is Almighty! I declare there is no God but Allah! I declare Muhammad is his prophet! Hie ye to prayer! Hie ye to salvation! Prayer is better than sleep! Prayer is better than sleep! There is no God but Allah!
And while King knelt behind the mullah and the whole camp faced Mecca in forehead-in-the-dust abasement there came a strange procession down the midst—not strange to the "Hills," where such sights are common, but strange to that camp and hour. Somebody rose and struck them, and they knelt like the rest; but when prayer was over and cooking had begun and the camp became a place of savory smell, they came on again—seven blind men.
They were weary, ragged, lean—seven very tatter-demalions—and the front man led them, tapping the ground with a long stick. The others clung to him in line, one behind the other. He was the only clean-shaven one, and he was the tallest. He looked as if he had not been blind so long, for his physical health was better. All seven men yelled at the utmost of their lungs, but he yelled the loudest.
"Oh, the hakim—the good hakim!" they wailed. "Where is the famous hakim? We be blind men—blind we be—blind—blind! Oh, pity us! Is any kismet worse than ours? Oh, show us to the hakim! Show us the way to him! Lead us to him! Oh, the famous, great, good hakim who can heal men's eyes!"
The mullah looked down on them like a vulture waiting to see them die, and seeing they did not die, turned his back and went into his cave. Close to the ramp they stopped, and the front man, cocking his head to one side as only birds and the newly blind do, gave voice again in nasal singsong.
"Will none tell me where is the great, good, wise hakim Kurram Khan?"
"I am he," said King, and he stepped down toward him, calling to an assistant to come and bring him water and a sponge. The blind man's face looked strangely familiar, though it was partly disguised by some gummy stuff stuck all about the eyes. Taking it in both hands be tilted the eyes to the light and opened one eye with his thumb. There was nothing whatever the matter with it. He opened the other.
"Rub me an ointment on!" the man urged him, and he stared at the face again.
"Ismail!" he said. "You?"
"Aye! Father of cleverness! Make play of healing my eyes!"
So King dipped a sponge in water and sent back for his bag and made a great show of rubbing on ointment. In a minute Ismail, looking almost like a young man without his great beard, was dancing like a lunatic with both fists in the air, and yelling as if wasps had stung him.
"Aieee—aieee—aieee!" he yelled. "I see again! I see! My eyes have light in them! Allah! Oh, Allah heap riches on the great wise hakfim who can heal men's eyes! Allah reward him richly, for I am a beggar and have no goods!"
The other six blind men came struggling to be next, and while King rubbed ointment on their eyes and saw that there was nothing there he could cure the whole camp began to surge toward him to see the miracle, and his chosen body-guard rushed up to drive them back.
"Find your way down the Khyber and ask for the Wilayti dakitar. He will finish the cure."
The six blind men, half-resentful, half-believing, turned away, mainly because Ismail drove them with words and blows. And as they went a tall Afridi came striding down the camp with a letter for the mullah held out in a cleft stick in front of him.
"Her answer!" said Ismail with a wicked grin.
"What is her word? Where is the Orakzai Pathan?"
But Ismail laughed and would not answer him. It seemed to King that he scented climax. So did his near-fifty and their thirty friends. He chose to take the arrival of the blind men as a hint from Providence and to "go it blind" on the strength of what he had hoped might happen. Also he chose in that instant to force the mullah's hand, on the principle that hurried buffaloes will blunder.
"To Khinjan!" he shouted to the nearest man. "The mullah will march on Khinjan!"
They murmured and wondered and backed away from him to give him room. Ismail watched him with dropped jaw and wild eye.
"Spread it through the camp that we march on Khinjan! Shout it! Bid them strike the tents!"
Somebody behind took up the shout and it went across the camp in leaps, as men toss a ball. There was a surge toward the tents, but King called to his deserters and they clustered back to him. He had to cement their allegiance now or fail altogether, and he would not be able to do it by ordinary argument or by pleading; he had to fire their imagination. And he did.
"She is on our side!" That was a sheer guess. "She has kept our man and sent another as hostage for him in token of good faith! Listen! Ye saw this man's eyes healed. Let that be a token! Be ye the men with new eyes! Give it out! Claim the title and be true to it and see me guide you down the Khyber in good time like a regiment, many more than a hundred strong!"
They jumped at the idea. The "Hills"—the whole East, for that matter—are ever ready to form a new sect or join a new band or a new blood-feud. Witness the Nikalseyns, who worship a long-since dead Englishman.
"We see!" yelled one of them.
"We see!" they chorused, and the idea took charge. From that minute they were a new band, with a war-cry of their own.
"To Khinjan!" they howled, scattering through the camp, and the mullah came out to glare at them and tug his beard and wonder what possessed them.
"To Khinjan!" they roared at him. "Lead us to Khinjan!"
"To Khinjan, then!" he thundered, throwing up both arms in a sort of double apostolic blessing, and then motioning as if he threw them the reins and leave to gallop. They roared back at him like the sea under the whip of a gaining wind. And Ismail disappeared among them, leaving King alone. Then the mullah's eyes fell on King and he beckoned him.
King went up with an effort, for he ached yet from his struggle of the night before. Up there by the ashes of the fire the mullah showed him a letter he had crumpled in his fist. There were only a few lines, written in Arabic, which all mullahs are supposed to be able to read, and they were signed with a strange scrawl that might have meant anything. But the paper smelt strongly of her perfume.
"Come, then. Bring all your men, and I will let you and them enter Khinjan Caves. We will strike a bargain in the Cavern of Earth's Drink."
That was all, but the fire in the mullah's eyes showed that he thought it was enough. He did not doubt that once he should have his extra four thousand in the caves Khinjan would be his; and he said so.
"Khinjan is mine!" he growled. "India is mine!"
And King did not answer him. He did not believe Yasmini would be fool enough to trust herself in any bargain with Muhammad Anim. Yet he could see no alternative as yet. He could only be still and be glad he had set the camp moving and so had forced the mullah's hand.
"The old fatalist would have suspected her answer otherwise!" he told himself, for he knew that he himself suspected it.
While he and the mullah watched the tents began to fall and the women labored to roll them. The men began firing their rifles, and within the hour enough ammunition had been squandered to have fought a good-sized skirmish; but the mullah did not mind, for he had Khinjan Caves in view, and none knew better than he what vast store of cartridges and dynamite was piled in there. He let them waste.
Watching his opportunity, King slipped down the ramp and into the crowd, while the mullah was busy with personal belongings in the cave. King left his own belongings to the fates, or to any thief who should care to steal them. He was safe from the mullah in the midst of his nearly eighty men, who half believed him a sending from the skies.
"We see! we see!" they yelled and danced around him.
Before ever the mullah gave an order they got under way and started climbing the steep valley wall. The mullah on his brown mule thrust forward, trying to get in the lead, and King and his men hung back, to keep at a distance from him. It was when the mullah had reached the top of the slope and was not far from being in the lead that Ismail appeared again, leading King's horse, that he had found in possession of another man. That did not look like enmity or treachery. King mounted and thanked him. Ismail wiped his knife, that had blood on it, and stuck his tongue through his teeth, which did not look quite like treachery either. Yet the Afridi could not be got to say a word.
Two or three miles along the top of the escarpment the mullah sent back word that he wanted the hakim to be beside him. Doubtless he had looked back and had seen King on the horse, head and shoulders above the baggage.
But King's men treated the messenger to open scorn and sent him packing.
"Bid the mullah hunt himself another hakim! Be thou his hakim! Stay, we will give thee a lesson in how to use a knife!"
The man ran, lest they carry out their threat, for men joke grimly in the "Hills."
Ismail came and held King's stirrup, striding beside him with the easy Hillman gait.
"Art thou my man at last?" King asked him, but Ismail laughed and shook his head.
"I am her man."
"Where is she?" King asked.
"Nay, who am I that I should know?"
"But she sent thee?"
"Aye, she sent me."
"To what purpose?"'
"To her purpose!" the Afridi answered, and King could not get another word out of him. He fell behind.
But out of the corner of his eye, and once or twice by looking back deliberately, King saw that Ismail was taking the members of his new band one by one and whispering to them. What he said was a mystery, but as they talked each man looked at King. And the more they talked the better pleased they seemed. And as the day wore on the more deferential they grew. By midday if King wanted to dismount there were three at least to hold his stirrup and ten to help him mount again.
By the sweat of your brow; by the ache of your bones; In the sun, in the wind, in the chill of the rains, Ye sowed as ye knew. And ye know it was blown To be trodden and burned—aye, and that by your own Who sneered at lean furrows and mocked at the stones. But ye stayed and sowed on. And a little remains. Ye shall have for your faith. Ye shall reap for your pains.
Four thousand men with women and children and baggage do not move so swiftly as one man or a dozen, especially in the "Hills," where discipline is reckoned beneath a proud man's honor. There were many miles to go before Khinjan when night fell and the mullah bade them camp. He bade them camp because they would have done it otherwise in any case.
"And we," said King to his all but eighty who crowded around him, "being men with new eyes and with a great new hope in us, will halt here and eat the evening meal and watch for an opportunity."
"Opportunity for what?" they asked him.
"An opportunity to show how Allah loves the brave!" said King, and they had to be content with that, for he would say no more to them. Seeing he would not talk, they made their little fires all around him and watched while their women cooked the food. The mullah would not let them eat until he and the whole camp had prayed like the only righteous.
When the evening meal was eaten, and sentries had been set at every vantage point, and the men all sat about cleansing their beards and fingers the mullah sent for the hakim again. Only this time he sent twenty men to fetch him.
There was so nearly a fight that the skin all down King's back was gooseflesh, for a fight at that juncture would have ruined everything. At the least he would have been made a hopeless helpless prisoner. But in the end the mullah's men drew off snarling, and before they could have time to receive new orders or reinforcements, King's die was cast.
There came another order from the mullah. The women and children were to be left in camp next dawn, and to remain there until sent for. There was murmuring at that around the camp, and especially among King's contingent. But King laughed.
"It is good!" he said.
"Why? How so?" they asked him.
"Bid your women make for the Khyber soon after the mullah marches tomorrow. Bid them travel down the Khyber until we and they meet!"
"Please yourselves, sahibs!" The hakim's air was one of supremest indifference. "As for me, I leave no women behind me in the mountains. I am content."
They murmured a while, but they gave the orders to their women, and King watched the women nod. And all that while Ismail watched him with carefully disguised concern, but undisguised interest. And King understood. Enlightenment comes to a man swiftly, when it does come, as a rule.
He recalled that Yasmini had not done much to make his first entry into Khinjan easy. On the contrary, she had put him on his mettle and had set Rewa Gunga to the task of frightening him and had tested him and tried him before tempting him at last.
She must be watching him now, for even the East repeats itself. She had sent Ismail for that purpose. It might be Ismail's business to drive a knife in him at the first opportunity, but he doubted that. It was much more likely that, having failed in an attempt to have him murdered, she was superstitiously remorseful. Her course would depend on his. If he failed, she was done with him. If he succeeded in establishing a strong position of his own, she would yield.
All of which did not explain Ismail's whisperings and noddings and chin strokings with King's contingent. But it explained enough for King's present purpose, and he wasted no time on riders to the problem. With or without Ismail's aid, with or without his enmity, he must control his eighty men and give the slip to the mullah, and he went at once about the best way to do both.
"We will go now," he said quietly. "That sentry in yonder shadow has his back turned. He has over-eaten. We will rush him and put good running between us and the mullah."
Surprised into obedience, and too delighted at the prospect of action to wonder why they should obey a hakim so, they slung on their bandoliers and made ready. Ismail brought up King's horse and he mounted. And then at King's word all eighty made a sudden swoop on the drowsy sentry and took him unawares. They tossed him over the cliff, too startled to scream an alarm; and though sentries on either hand heard them and shouted, they were gone into outer darkness like wind-blown ghosts of dead men before the mullah even knew what was happening.
They did not halt until not one of them could run another yard, King trusting to his horse to find a footing along the cliff-tops, and to the men to find the way.
"Whither?" one whispered to him.
"To Khinjan!" he answered; and that was enough. Each whispered to the other, and they all became fired with curiosity more potent than money bribes.
When he halted at last and dismounted and sat down and the stragglers caught up, panting, they held a council of war all together, with Ismail sitting at King's back and leaning a chin on his shoulder in order to hear better. Bone pressed on bone, and the place grew numb; King shook him off a dozen times; but each time Ismail set his chin back on the same spot, as a dog will that listens to his master. Yet he insisted he was her man, and not King's.
"Now, ye men of the Hills," said King, "listen to me who am political- offender-with-reward-for-capture-offered!" That was a gem of a title. It fired their imaginations. "I know things that no soldier would find out in a thousand years, and I will tell you some of what I know."
Now he had to be careful. If he were to invent too much they might denounce him as a traitor to the "Hills" in general. If he were to tell them too little they would lose interest and might very well desert him at the first pinch. He must feel for the middle way and upset no prejudices.
"She has discovered that this mullah Muhammad Anim is no true muslim, but an unbelieving dog of a foreigner from Farangistan! She has discovered that he plans to make himself an emperor in these Hills, and to sell Hillmen into slavery!" Might as well serve the mullah up hot while about it! Beyond any doubt not much more than a mile away the mullah was getting even by condemning the lot of them to death. "An eye for the risk of an eye!" say the unforgiving Hills.
"If one of us should go back into his camp now he would be tortured. Be sure of that."
Breathing deeply in the darkness, they nodded, as if the dark had eyes. Ismail's chin drove a fraction deeper into his shoulder.
"Now ye know—for all men know—that the entrance into Khinjan Caves is free to any man who can tell a lie without flinching. It is the way out again that is not free. How many men do ye know that have entered and never returned?"
They all nodded again. It was common knowledge that Khinjan was a very graveyard of the presumptuous.
"She has set a trap for the mullah. She will let him and all his men enter and will never let them out again!"
"How knowest thou?" This from two men, one on either hand.
"Was I never in Khinjan Caves?" he retorted. "Whence came I? I am her man, sent to help trap the mullah! I would have trapped all you, but for being weary of these 'Hills' and wishful to go back to India and be pardoned! That is who I am! That is how I know!"
Their breath came and went sibilantly, and the darkness was alive with the excitement they thought themselves too warrior-like to utter.
"But what will she do then?" asked somebody.
King searched his memory, and in a moment there came back to him a picture of tile hurrying jezailchi he had held up in the Khyber Pass, and recollection of the man's words.
"Know ye not," he said, "that long ago she gave leave to all who ate the salt to be true to the salt? She gave the Khyber jezailchis leave to fight against her. Be sure, whatever she does, she will stand between no man and his pardon!"
"But will she lead a jihad? We will not fight against her!"
"Nay," said King, drawing his breath in. Ismail's chin felt like a knife against his collar bone, and Ismail's iron fingers clutched his arm. It was time to give his hostage to dame Fortune. "She will go down into India and use her influence in the matter of the pardons!"